Warrior Ways: Explorations in Modern Military Folklore

Edited by Eric A. Eliason and Tad Tuleja. 2012. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press. 296 pages. ISBN: 978-1-87421-891-6 (soft cover).


Reviewed by Kristiana Willsey, Indiana University

[Review length: 1105 words • Review posted on April 24, 2014]


In Warrior Ways, Eric Eliason and Tad Tuleja have collected a diverse body of perspectives on North American military culture of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The editors strive to foreground complexity and contradiction rather than reduce military members to their “master narratives”: the stoic hero, the “idealistic innocents...victimized in our name by political leaders,” the amoral killer, or the disadvantaged teenager (9-10). Eliason and Tuleja offer reflexive ethnography as a critical corrective to these oversimplified types. Through emic perspectives and engaged fieldwork, the various contributors find the interplay between official regimes and vernacular expression that is such rich ground for folkloristics.

Warrior Ways is divided into four sections: Deploying, Sounding Off, Belonging, and Remembering, but the groupings are more suggested than pronounced. For instance, Jay Mechling’s psychologically rich study of soldiers’ snapshots (in Remembering) considers the staging and performance of masculinity as “deep play,” which pairs nicely with Mickey Weems’ analysis of the military’s complicated history with homosexuality (in Belonging). Similarly, Richard Allen Burns’ historically informed consideration of the many faces of “Jody” (the eponymous villain of “Jody calls,” or marching chants), has as much in common with Greg Kelley’s contribution on the history of “Colonel Bogey’s March” as it does with Elinor Levy’s work on linguistic diglossia in the military, although the former is grouped under Remembering and the latter (with Burns) under Sounding Off.

These loose groupings mean the individual chapters can easily be read out of order or extracted for pedagogical purposes. However, when taken together, Warrior Ways tells a story that is more than the sum of its parts. As a whole, the collection shines a light on the complicated liminality of America’s military: soldiers are simultaneously a heightened, exaggerated expression of national values, politics, and ideologies, and an exception to them. The public is inundated with big-budget military movies, but off-screen, placing uniformity and obedience to orders over personal glory or self-expression is antithetical to the Hollywood version of heroism. The American ideal of rugged individualism is a liability to soldiers, who must learn to rely on one another and to function as a unit. Operating under a separate legal system, soldiers (in theory) defend freedoms that (in practice) they have less access to than civilians.

In many ways, then, it’s the section “Belonging” that carries the most thematic weight; every contributor implicitly or explicitly addresses the ambiguous position military men and women occupy between the government (passing down orders) and the civilian population (in whose name the orders are made). This insider/outsider standing is negotiated through slang in Angus Gillespie’s work, challenged by the peripheral status of military spouses in Kristi Young’s chapter, and underscored by the talismans and rituals surrounding deployment and returning home explored by Carole Burke. The liminal status of the military becomes especially fraught in the complex identification soldiers come to feel with the Afghan and Iraqi people they both fight with, and fight against. In Eric Eliason’s chapter, “Folk-Folkloristics,” members of the Special Forces unit he served as chaplain for act as self-trained scholars as they attempt to categorize and analyze the rituals, beliefs, and material culture of their Afghan military counterparts. Through this “bottom up” (though not native) ethnography, Eliason’s soldiers construct and contest the strangeness of their Afghan “others” as they relate to them through the particular biases of their own culture.

The analyses of soldiers’ expressive forms do not shy away from the vulgarity, sexism, violence, and cultural insensitivity that is often front and center in the texts, but they also don’t permit the sharp edges of their subject matter to remove them from the scholarly consideration these texts deserve. Politics are not absent from the volume (see, in particular, Lisa Gilman’s chapter on veteran anti-war activists), but the emphasis in Warrior Ways is on the military as an occupational folk group: the specialized language (Levy, Gillespie), rituals and material culture (Burke, Eliason), urban legends (Oswald), and songs (Burns, Kelley, Tuleja) that express the military’s conflicted position between the state and its citizens.

The contradictory hyper-American/unamerican nature of the armed services comes through particularly clearly in Mickey Weems’ excellent chapter, “Taser to the ‘Nads: Brutal Embrace of Queerness in Military Practice.” Although the military as an organization is notoriously, aggressively heteronormative, the military’s models of masculinity are so explicitly performative that they veer into the realm of camp. Paradoxically, the exaggerated “straightness” of the military permits a level of physical and emotional closeness that would be impossible in the civilian world. Tracing the military’s conflicted history with homosexuality (also seen in Tad Tuleja’s analysis of gay parodies of “The Ballad of the Green Berets”), Weems digs into the many “homophobic-erotic” forms of play that simultaneously confront and defer the intimacy of male-male relationships in the military.

Ambiguous positioning is likewise at the heart of Elinor Levy’s chapter, “Upper Echelon and Boots on the Ground,” in which Levy finds that the usual understanding of military jargon as a single, specialized variety of speech oversimplifies the linguistic (and cultural) complexity of the military. Levy cogently frames military language as a form of diglossia, in which soldiers must learn to master both “officialese” and “enlistic” (which can be further divided into different “branch enlistics”) and fluently code-switch between the two varieties. Tellingly, the outwardly hierarchical culture of the military is more fluid in practice: the different speech varieties “constantly interpenetrate and reinforce one another” rather than being used exclusively within their originating group (100).

Liminality is the crux of Lisa Gilman’s chapter, “Oppositional Positioning,” which considers the complicated politics of anti-war veterans. Folk groups as oppositional cultures, rejecting and redefining the dictates of “official” culture, have long been productive ground for folkloristics. But Gilman brings a fresh level of complexity by drawing out her interlocutors’ “simultaneous identification with and differentiation from the military” (185). The veterans at Coffee Strong negotiate their relationship to their past service, choosing to embrace some elements of military culture while rejecting others. Gilman extends Dorothy Noyes’ idea of community as a “multiplex network,” defined as much by its differences as its similarities. A study of America’s military cannot avoid these tangled moments of dis/affiliation.

In the “master narratives” that Eliason and Tuleja set out to complicate, soldiers are either treated as entirely “official”--simply the hands of America’s government, for good or ill--or entirely “vernacular”--the resistant victims of the powers that be. But folklorists work best at the boundaries, and in Warrior Ways, the military appears, not as a marginalized group, but nonetheless as a marginal one--a complicated intermediary between the government and the citizens that is both aggressively American and interestingly counter-cultural.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.